Game 143, Astros at Mariners
King Felix vs. Brad Peacock, 7:10pm
Wildcard Odds – Fangraphs.com 52.3% Baseballprospectus.com: 47.5%
Happy Felix Day, everyone. I apologize for not getting game threads up, but I decided to take a page out of Jeff/Matthew’s book and go camping instead. I’ve mentioned the many ways this season feels different than its immediate predecessors, but I’ve been camping several times over the past few years and not once was I upset about missing an M’s game. I was a bit upset at missing these two games. Not distraught or anything, but hey, after the decade we’ve all had, any sort of feeling is a good sign.
The Astros come to town fresh off a series win against the Athletics, another sign that Houston’s not quite the embarassment they’ve been for the past few years. Since July 1st, they’re 19-15, which isn’t bad for a team that lost an astonishing 218 games over 2012-13. They’ve even posted the 2nd best improvement in run differential from 2013 to 2014 at +152 runs (2nd behind Seattle at +223). They’re still not good, of course, and with George Springer on the 15-day DL, they’re arguably less interesting than a a team that’s this far into a rebuild should be. But they’re not without strengths. One player to whom the label “strength” applies is 1B/LF/DH Chris Carter, the lumbering slugger who came to Houston in the Jed Lowrie deal with Oakland – a trade that also netted the Astros tonight’s starter, Brad Peacock.* Carter went from PCL terror (Mike Curto still shudders involuntarily at the mention of his name, the result of the show he put on in the 2009 PCL playoffs) to overmatched, overage MLB prospect to possible AL home run crown winner. His success sheds some light on the shifts baseball’s undergone in the past five-ten seasons.
Carter had light-tower power coming out of HS, and put up solid power numbers in the minors, first in the White Sox system and then with the A’s. But he was always beset by strikeout issues, and his trouble with breaking balls and pitch recognition has led to freakishly high whiff rates. By pitch fx, no qualified batter has made less contact than Carter. That’s a problem – one that can only be overcome with great defense, an extremely patient approach, or off-the-charts power. Carter’s not a great fielder, even at 1B, so the combination of his fielding and his spot on the fielding spectrum means he’s yielded over 50 runs in his brief MLB career thus far. So, the balancing attribute isn’t going to be defense. Carter’s walk rate is a very respectable 8.8% this year, but that’s down substantially from his 11% career rate, or the 12% he put up last year. The problem is that he’s an aggressive hitter, and thus he swings at more pitches than average, despite seeing a few less strikes. It’s not that he flails at pitches in the dirt, but that he’ll swing at pitches on the edges – and just off the edges – of the zone. So, he’s not going to put up peak-period Adam Dunn OBPs either.
To be viable at ALL in baseball, Carter has to make the most of every time he contacts the ball. For Carter, that’s meant focusing on launch angle. Just looking at Mike Fast’s tweets (former public sabermetrics guy and current Astros employee), it looks like the team pays a lot of attention to that too. We don’t have hit FX, but we can certainly look at Carter’s GB and FB rates. Since 2012, his FB% has gone from 45.7% to 46.8% to 53.9%. The Astros aren’t paying Carter to hit ground balls, so this looks like a very good sign. Carter’s 2nd in the league in HRs, but his overall batting line certainly isn’t up to those his peers like Jose Abreu, Mike Trout or even Nelson Cruz are crafting. We’re still talking about a limited player here,** but the larger question behind all of this is: how do you get the most out of what you have? The Astros are getting more out of Carter than most thought they could.
Brad Peacock is a righty with a 93mph four-seam fastball that gets a ton of vertical rise. As such, it won’t shock you that he’s an extreme fly ball/pop-up guy who has his share of home run problems. To lefties, he’ll throw a big curve ball and a change-up, and to righties he features a slider, backed by the curve. The hook’s his best pitch, with solid whiff rates and a record of success against lefties. The fastball’s solid, as the vertical movement gets him less contact than you’d think, while minimizing platoon splits. The problem is that he trades occasional hard contact for these assorted virtues, and his walk rate makes that a really steep price to pay. It’s odd for a guy who throws so many four-seam fastballs, but Peacock’s *career* BB/9 is 4.42, and his career walk rate is over 11%. That’s fine if you’re a fireballer with enough velocity to minimize HRs/hard contact or a reliever who strikes out enough to compensate. It’s not fine if you’re a starter giving up 1.35 HR/9. His career ERA/FIP are essentially identical, and thus he’s just slightly above replacement level over his 212 career IP whichever flavor of WAR you choose. There’s always the sense that there’s more talent in there somewhere, and that a small change would produce big results the way they have for teammates Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel. But for now, Peacock’s the same guy the M’s have seen often the past two seasons – a guy who will reward a patient approach, and will give batters a few mistakes over the course of the game.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Chavez, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Morrison, 1B
7: Zunino, C
8: Saunders, RF
9: Miller, SS
SP: KING FELIX
Go out and watch this one, Seattle. This is a critical game in September with the M’s best pitcher taking on a divisional rival. Gooooooo.
Lots of lefties tonight, and a warm welcome back to Michael Saunders. Nice timing too, with Dustin Ackley’s ankle still bothering him.
The Tigers and Royals are facing off right now, so the M’s gain ground on someone. I suppose it’s time to temporarily start cheering for the Royals, which is tough because I *just* got used to rooting against them. The A’s have been in free fall, which makes their trip to the south side so critical. Schadenfreude is seeing a team that looked like the class of baseball pressing in a must-win game against Hector Noesi.
* That trade’s been good for all involved. The A’s got Lowrie’s best/healthiest year ever last year and rode him to a 3+ WAR season and the playoffs. The Astros solved their 1B/DH woes after shuffling through Carlos Pena, Brett Wallace and Brandon Laird.
* I’ve been thinking about what player Carter reminds me of. Mark Reynolds comes to mind, of course, but a 3B has more to offer defensively, and Reynolds got started a bit quicker. I’d point out that Carter’s 2013 K% was actually higher than Reynolds career high, a fact that surprised me more than it probably should have. Going back to the similar offensive environment of the 80s, Jesse Barfield is out due to great defense, and George Bell because he struck out infrequently. But I think I’ve got one. This player bounced between AAA-MLB for three years before getting a starting gig at 27 and putting up a line of .244/.320/.498. In his next season, he went .243/.307/.477 and led the league in strikeouts. Carter’s first year? .223/.320/.451. This year, he’s at .235/.309/.521, and ranks last in contact. Neither had big platoon splits ala Ryan Howard, they’re the same type of hitter against righties and lefties alike. So there you go, Chris Carter is most like ex-Royal and ex-Mariner Steve “Bye-Bye” Balboni.